This GrowthBit is adapted from an original blog post by Kevin Jones, CEO of Celero Commerce, found here.
Focusing on people means helping them align their own built-in purpose to the needs of your organization, so you can grow and succeed together.
Much has been written and discussed on the notion of performance-based culture. I bought into the concept as a very young manager, and I’ve expanded on it through my years leading larger and larger groups of people as they accomplish great things.
Focusing on people doesn’t just mean hiring right, nor does it stop at training. It requires a commitment to their development, helping them align their own built-in purpose to the needs of your organization, so you can grow and succeed together.
There are hundreds of books written on how to do this, but one approach I’d like to call out is challenging mediocrity. I believe the ways I was challenged in my early career helped me grow into the leader I am at Celero Commerce today, and I can point to countless cases where it has been an important catalyst for both my companies and my individual employees’ success.
Here’s one example.
The Battle Against Mediocrity
With any large group of people, you’re going to have some application of the 80/20 rule, where your top 20 percent pulls the team goalward. Or they shape into a bell curve, where you have some people at the high-performance end, some weak performers at the opposite, and a wide middle group who range from those who just need a little boost before they become top performers to those just another cycle away from joining the bottom-feeders.
Whatever diagram represents your employee base, it is critical to the company’s success to challenge mediocrity in all its forms at a group and an individual level. When you consistently challenge your team to do more, to do better, to do things more simply, and to do those things faster, you find out where the leaders are.
As CEOs, we need to think of the possibilities, not just in the organizations we lead, but for each individual employee.
But where do you focus effort within that 80 percent, or the wide-ranging, middle-of-the-pack employees? Anybody can—and should—reward top performers with raises, bonuses and promotions. But I believe the real reward for leaders comes from startup-minded projects, and better yet from “turnaround” personal situations. As CEOs, we need to think of those possibilities not just in the organizations we lead, but for each individual employee.
Taking an Employee from Worst to First
At 27 years old, I found myself leading 10 branch offices of a regional bank. Each office had a manager, assistant manager and about five entry level sales executives. The leader of our division, one of my earliest and best mentors, was committed to building a high-performance culture. Our entire team was known as a group of champions, but the way I was constantly challenged enabled me to earn three promotions after leading my division as an individual, as a branch manager and as a regional manager in new loans generated.
When I was handed a new opportunity to double the size of my region, instinctively I began studying my new employees and surveying their managers and peers about them. I was raised to treat people with respect as individuals, so this process armed me with critical information to tailor my management style to each employee’s needs.
With that knowledge, one of the first things I did was confront our team’s weakest links. My theory was that the team would win whether these folks did better, or if they left the company. What I discovered by focusing on individuals, was that sometimes when you meet people where they are, without sacrificing your standards, you find the people that can go from worst to first.
When you meet people where they are, without sacrificing your standards, you find the people that can go from worst to first.
One of the employees I confronted was known to be very bright, but his poor attitude reflected not only in his own performance (or lack thereof), but also in the weakening performances of those he’d befriended most around the office.
Tough Love Works When People Need It
I chose an approach of tough love. When I confronted this individual, I let him know how much potential I thought he had—in fact, I let him know that he could become one of our best performers in the entire region based on his grasp of the business and his people skills. I also let him know that, should he rise to my expectations, raises, promotions, and the thrill of every success awaited, and in short order.
But I also told him that there was another path. He could do us all a favor—especially himself—and find another job where he might be more self-motivated and ultimately happier. Needless to say, and to the surprise of his colleagues, that bottom performer chose the harder path and stayed. And he didn’t just stay. He excelled in every aspect of his job, becoming one of the best examples and motivators to others. Despite coming within an inch of being fired, I eventually ended up putting him in charge of all my region’s hiring and training.
It’s About Their Needs, Not Yours
The level of success that we achieved together was eye-opening for me. People have different needs, talents and abilities, and managers should commit the time uncovering them and responding to them in kind. It turned out that our bottom performer had incredible creativity, but he needed to feel valued and feel challenged, which are often the drivers that work in tandem to enable talent to reach its full potential.
In any profession, there are lots of problems that require creative minds to find solutions. I pushed this individual to drastically improve and found him to be an incredible strategic partner by simply helping him find ways to unleash his creativity. He met every challenge and became one of my most trusted advisors.
I have stayed connected to this team member throughout the duration of our careers. Now, nearly 25 years later, he is an indispensable asset in his role here at Celero.
Some team members prefer comfort, but over time, they will leave (or stay and drag others down) if you aren’t cultivating them to fulfill their purpose and reach their potential.
Here’s the bottom line.
A performance-based culture is a fair culture that rewards team members who create value. It challenges the top performers and keeps them engaged. I have found that in the day-to-day, some team members prefer comfort, but over time, they will leave (or stay and drag others down to under-perform) if you aren’t cultivating them to fulfill their purpose and reach their potential.
I think intentionally about those who report to me and work in my organizations. If they chose me as a mentor or my company as home, I make sure they know I not only have high expectations for myself, but also for them. Through my career, my greatest joy and success is playing that role with others: recognizing and cultivating excellence in the individuals on my team and witnessing their growth, in their careers and in life.